Through numerous circumstances, hobbies and events in my life I have been lucky enough to have traveled quite extensively throughout the United States. Even before I started this Top 100 madness there were only seven states where I had not left my footprint over the years. Back in 2007 when I looked at the Top 100 list for the first time I took note that if I could complete the list I would be able to visit four more new states leaving me with just three to visit in order to have been to all 50. Alabama is one of the four that my Top 100 Golf Odyssey would bring me to for the first time.
Having never been to Alabama and not knowing anyone who lived there I wasn’t too sure how I was going to find my way onto the exclusive private club Shoal Creek. I decided not to worry about it for the time being and hoped that I would eventually meet someone who would be able to help me. As things tend to happen with the Top 100 Golf Odyssey a solution presented itself. Driving home from a game of golf in Richmond one day early in the 2010 season I received an email from a fellow golfer named John. He wrote that he had been following my blog for awhile and that he wished to invited me to join him for a game at Shoal Creek where he was a member. I will never cease to be amazed and awed how things have a way of coming together and by the support that I have received from golfers all across the country. This whole thing would never happen if not for the kindness of strangers. It humbles me every single time I think about it.
Once I got to a stoplight I immediately returned John’s email thanking him for his invitation and letting him know that I’d be back in touch when I was able to figure out my schedule a bit more. Several months and quite a few emails later we eventually decided on a game in late October on a Saturday that would not conflict with Alabama football. Like most Alabamans John loves his college football and The Crimson Tide is his team of choice.
We were playing on a Saturday and I because I didn’t have time to hang around and play any other courses in the area I decided to fly into Birmingham on Friday night and then fly back out after the game on Saturday. Fortunately the planes ran on time and I arrived in Birmingham around 8:30PM on Friday night. I picked up my rental car and followed my trusty GPS to the club. When I turned off the main road and started traveling the side roads that would take me to the club I was surprised at the elevation changes I experienced. With all the up and down I felt like I was in the Swiss Alps which was not at all what I was expecting of Alabama. On top of negotiating all the hills and valleys on the road I must note that it was also pitch black dark except for the pathetically weak beams of light pumped out by my Toyota Yaris hatchback. It was sort of an erie drive and I prayed that the Yaris was mechanically sound enough to get me to the club. I did NOT want to break down on this desolate road. [Insert your own Deliverance joke here.]
John had made arrangements for me to stay at Shoal Creek in one of the sleeping rooms above the pro shop. Upon arrival at the club’s gate the security guard wasn’t sure I could find my way to the pro shop on my own, so he hopped into his vehicle and I followed him which turned out the be a good thing. I probably would have had a tough time as the property is large and its easy to make a mistake in the dark. Once we reached the pro shop he gave me the key to my quaint little room and I hit the rack with visions of birdies dancing in my head. Below is a photo of the room.
After getting an excellent nights sleep above the pro shop I awoke in plenty of time to look around before meeting John for breakfast. I went outside and dropped my golf bag off with a caddie and took a few photos. Below is a photo of the pro shop that I slept above.
With some time to kill before breakfast I went into the clubhouse to poke around and see what I could learn. Like most of the great American golf clubs, Shoal Creek was the product of one man’s vision. Mr. Hall W. Thompson was an Alabama business man involved in heavy machinery and development who found a little valley at the base of Double Oak Mountain and turned it into one of the great golf havens in America.
At the behest of Augusta National Golf Club’s infamous chairman, Mr. Clifford Roberts, Hall Thompson hired Jack Nicklaus to build the golf course at Shoal Creek. At the time Nicklaus was less than 10 years into the golf course architecture business and had not yet built a course completely on his own. Mr. Thompson decided that Shoal Creek would be Nicklaus’ very first solo design which turned out to be pretty smart considering that both the club and the course became instant successes. The USGA and PGA both awarded major championships to the club shortly after opening and over the years about 75 members have loved the club so much that they built houses inside the gates of Shoal Creek. The property is 1,500 acres so there is plenty of land and only 30 or so of the houses are situated on or near the golf course. The majors contested at Shoal Creek have been the 1984 and 1990 PGA Championships as well as the 1986 U.S. Amateur and the 2008 U.S. Junior Amateur. Not too shabby for Nicklaus’ first solo design.
So, after looking around the upstairs of the clubhouse I went downstairs and met John in the grill room. After a quick breakfast we headed out to the practice tee to meet up with his buddy Wes who would be joining us. When it was our turn to tee off we went to the 1st tee where we decided to play from the 4 star tees which played 6,833 yards to a par of 72.
There are a couple things that I am scared of when it comes to my Top 100 Quest. The first is that I will miss a flight and not make my scheduled tee time. Another is that my clubs will not show up and I’ll have to deal with that whole nightmare. The final one is that I’m going to get on the first tee at a wonderful course, with a host who doesn’t know me from Adam and I’m going to duff my first drive 40 yards off the tee box. Luckily, I have not experienced either of the airline related problems but unfortunately my number three fear came true at Shoal Creek. I would love to know exactly what was going through John’s mind after my first drive dribbled off the front of tee box and into the rough . I’m sure it was something along the lines of “What have I gotten myself into??”
I don’t have a photo taken from the 1st hole tee as I was too busy hitting a breakfast ball with my tail between my legs to remember to shoot a photo. The hole is a par 4 that we played from 376 yards. It is fairly straight away with trees on both sides of the fairway. Below is a photo of the approach to the 1st green.
Our first par 5 hole of the day is the 499 yard 3rd hole. This one is certainly reachable in two for big hitters. There are some nasty fairway bunkers out there that must be avoided. The photo below was taken from the tee box.
Two good pokes can get the ball home on this hole, but there is a lengthy bunker that runs along the right side of the fairway up near the green and along side the green to catch shots that come up on the right side of the green. The photo below is roughly where the second shot would be hit from after a good drive.
The 5th hole is our first par 3 of the day. This one we played from 183 yards. A miss short and to the left will require reloading. I ended up over on the right which is clearly better, but still not where one wants to be.
We come to another par 5 at the 6th hole which we played from 553 yards. There aren’t many amateur golfers hitting this green in two. The hole turns to the right and the ideal line for the drive is to aim just to the right of the bunkers out there in the distance.
In addition to the length another reason reaching this green in two is darn near impossible is the trees that are clearly in the way of the second shot. The photo below was taken where I hit my second shot from and there is no way I could put my ball on the green from here. The best way to play the second shot from here is to lay the ball up to the left of the trees leaving a short wedge to the green.
The 10th hole is a straight away 406 yard par 4. I missed taking a photo from the tee, but there is a lake on the right as you are teeing off and the best plan is to blast it down the middle as far as possible. The green, pictured below, has three tiers which allows for a wide variety of hole locations.
The 11th hole is a shortish par 5 that we played from 497 yards. This one is definitely reachable in two for players who are able to hit a big drive. The photo below was taken from the tee box and the best line is to knock it straight out there in the fairway.
Below is a photo of the green at the 11th hole. As shown below the green is fronted by water and those who are intending to get home in two will have to be sure they have enough club to get it all the way to the putting surface.
After playing the 11th hole John and Wes suggested that we hike to the top of the championship tee box at the 12th hole. The photo below was taken from this tee box. From here the hole plays as a 491 yard par 4. I was happy to go back down to our tee box and play from a more manageable length.
At the 14th hole we finally get a break from the long par 4s with this one playing 375 yards. The photo below was taken from the tee box and is the best photo I have that really shows the way that the golf course sits in the valley of the mountains.
The 15th hole is another par 4 and we played this one from 390 yards. The tee ball plays a tiny bit uphill and the green at this hole has more bunkers on the right side protecting it. The photo below was taken from the tee box.
The final par 3 of the day is the 16th hole which we played from a distance of 190. Although it is down hill, I still hit every bit of my 190 club. John warned me specifically to make sure I hit the green here, but I don’t take direction well and I missed which left me with an impossibly difficult up and down for par. It didn’t go well and I made my putt for a double. Ouch.
Below is a photo of the 17th green. As shown the green has a water hazard protecting it on the front side. For most players the smartest move on this hole will be to lay up with the second shot and hit a nice short wedge into the green to ensure accuracy.
The 18th hole closes the game out with another long par 4 that we played from 414 yards. This hole is fairly straight away and the best plan is to knock the drive down the fairway as far as possible. I did not take my own advice and I yanked a low screamer over onto the left side of the hole.
Fortunately, I recovered well and hit a high hooking approach shot from over in the trees onto the fringe of the green leaving me a 12 footer for birdie. I had to put that note in there because it was one of the best shots I’ve hit on my Top 100 quest and I didn’t want to forget it! Below is a photo of the green.
After starting out with my topped drive on the first tee I managed to make it around the course reasonably well. I was pleased about that and I’m sure John was thankful as well. I didn’t manage to make any birdies, but I avoided complete disaster holes and posted my typical low 80s round with a couple of late in the game blunders keeping me from getting into the 70s. All in all I was pleased with my play.
I had a great time at Shoal Creek. Generally speaking Jack Nicklaus’ golf course design sensibilities don’t really suit my tastes, but at Shoal Creek the course has a great natural feel to it and doesn’t feel at all contrived like some other Nicklaus designs I have played. It was a very enjoyable course to play and the club has a great vibe to it. The founder, Mr. Thompson, had passed away just days prior to my visit so I was unable to meet him, but he has created a lasting legacy that will be enjoyed for many, many years to come.